Kevin Drum - September 2013

Yep, the Ghouta Gas Attacks Were Carried Out By the Assad Regime

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 10:59 PM EDT

The UN report on the chemical weapons strike in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus has been released, and to no one's surprise it confirms that a sarin gas attack was carried out. The report doesn't try to affix blame for the attack, but the facts it provides make it vanishingly unlikely that it was launched by anyone other than the Assad regime.

The inspection team found two rockets that were relatively intact and therefore possible to describe in some detail (the details are in Appendix 5). The first one is an old Russian BM-14. The second is a unique design that Syria weapons autodidact Brown Moses has been referring to for a while as an UMLACA (Unidentified Munition Linked to Alleged Chemical Attacks). It's shown below in the UN report:

The UMLACA appears to be manufactured, not cobbled together out of parts, as you might expect if it were a rebel design. What's more, Moses says this about the BM-14 and the UMLACA: "In the 18 months I've been studying the arms and munitions in the conflict I have never seen either type of munition used by the opposition."

The UN inspectors were able to estimate the trajectories of the two rockets they found, and BruceR provides a map showing where they seem to have come from:

The graphic here shows the actual bearings the report gives (215 degrees and 105 degrees) with arrows exactly 5 miles long, pointing away from their likely points of origin....Incredibly, the two rocket paths traced backwards actually converge right on Mount Qasioun, a mountain overlooking Damascus which the Syrian government has heavily fortified. You may remember Mount Qasioun... back in May Israeli jets blew up a huge quantity of "advanced surface-to-surface rockets" on the mountain they alleged were about to be transferred by the Syrian government to Hezbollah. The same mountain is also the location of the government's secretive Jamraya military research center, long rumoured to be central to the Syrian government's chemical weapons program.

And the New York Times adds this:

Moreover, those weapons are fired by large, conspicuous launchers. For rebels to have carried out the attack, they would have had to organize an operation with weapons they are not known to have and of considerable scale, sophistication and secrecy — moving the launchers undetected into position in areas under strong government influence or control, keeping them in place unmolested for a sustained attack that would have generated extensive light and noise, and then successfully withdrawing them — all without being detected in any way.

BruceR's conclusion: "The chances of this being some kind of attack by someone outside the Syrian government, already slim, basically have to drop to zero now, assuming you trust the UN's facts as presented." That sounds about right. Added to all the other intelligence pointing in the same direction, there's really no longer any case to be made that this was some kind of false-flag rebel operation. It was a chemical weapons attack mounted by the Assad government. Sorry, Rush.

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The Tea Party Really, Really, Really Wants to Sabotage Obamacare

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 1:19 PM EDT

We all know that plenty of people disapprove of Obamacare. But do they want lawmakers to make the best of it, or do they want them to "do what they can to make the law fail"? According to Pew, only 23 percent of Americans want elected officials to work hard for failure.

Ed Kilgore points out that "make it fail" is loaded language, which might have pushed that number down. Fair point. But even so, among tea partiers a rather stunning 64 percent want elected officials to actively work for the law's failure. And since congressional Republicans are basically slaves of the tea party at this point, I guess we all know what this means, don't we?

It means that new rounds of shutting down the government and taking hostages over the debt ceiling are pretty damn likely later this year. This stuff is all driven by the tea party wing of the GOP, and that wing is dead set on sabotaging Obamacare above all else. They will tolerate no stone left unturned in their drive to defund, defang, or otherwise destroy Obamacare.

Is there a silver lining to all this? Maybe. Given the tiny percentage of non-tea-partiers who approve of the deliberate sabotage strategy, a scorched-earth campaign by Republicans could backfire on them pretty badly. It all depends on how well the rollout of Obamacare goes, and how that affects public opinion. That makes the next few months pretty critical for both sides. If the rollout is relatively smooth, support for Obamacare will rise—especially among the people who benefit from it, many of whom are still skeptical that it's for real. But if the Fox News crowd manages to convince the public that every minor problem represents an epic disaster unfolding in front of their eyes, then who knows? Maybe the sabotage strategy will pan out.

But I will say this: We know for certain that opponents of Obamacare will be screaming from the rooftops about every setback. Their goal is to make Obamacare look like a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, and they harbor no doubts about the righteousness of their cause. If liberals want to win this battle for public opinion, they'd better be ready to fight back just as hard. At this point, it doesn't matter much what you thought of the law in the first place. This is a war between left and right for the heart and soul of America. It's a good time to make sure you're clear about which side you're on.

CORRECTION: I originally said that 12 percent of Americans wanted elected official to make Obamacare fail. This question was only asked of the 53 percent of people who disapproved of the law in the first place, so I figured that 23 percent of 53 percent was 12 percent. But no. Pew's chart is saying that the 53 percent is composed of 27 percent want to make Obamacare work and 23 percent who want to make it fail.

Sorry about that. The text has been corrected.

Attacking Stupid Ideas: A Dirty Job, But Someone's Got to Do It

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 11:49 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen posits today that on economic issues, the right wing was both more dynamic and more correct than the left during the 70s and 80s, with "peak right" coming in 1989. After that, the left became more dynamic and more interesting. Obviously this is an arguable hypothesis, but let's put it aside for a moment to consider this:

The relative rise of the Left peaks in 2009, with the passage of Obamacare and the stimulus. From that point on, the left wing, for better or worse, is a fundamentally conservative force in the intellectual arena. It becomes reactive and loses some of its previous creativity.

Over those years, right wing thought, on the whole, became worse and more predictable and also less interesting. But excess predictability now has infected the left wing also. Attacking stupid ideas put forward by Republicans, whether or not you think that is desirable or necessary, has become their lazy man’s way forward and it is sapping their faculties.

Here's my question: Supposing, arguendo, that stupid ideas from Republicans have been the most destructive economic force of the past four years, then isn't attacking those ideas actually a pretty productive use of time for a left-wing economist? Sure, it would be nice to see lots of intellectual ferment coming from the left, but (a) it's probably too soon for that given the scale of the upheavals of 2008-13, and (b) it's hard for elegant new theories to get much of a foothold until the stupid stuff is finally and definitively put in the ash can of history.

These are both debatable points. But I think there's been some interesting work on shadow banking, the future of automation, the role of financial intermediaries, the cyclical impact of leverage, and much more coming out of the left and center-left recently. And that's not even counting some equally interesting work on the role of income inequality on economic growth that's starting to emerge from the leftier precincts of the left. But this stuff is all still trying to find its legs. It's too soon for anyone to have emerged as the Keynes or Friedman of the post-financial-crash world.

Likewise, even after five years, right-wing economists are still pushing pet theories of austerity that make no sense, along with a variety of nonsensical RBC blather and monetary medievalism. Maybe the best course for academic economists is to ignore this stuff, knowing that it's basically doomed in short order. But you can hardly blame them for thinking that this might be a dangerous course, one that could end up in disaster for lack of pushback. I don't know if that's the right way to think about it, but it's not obviously ridiculous.

Obama's Syria Plan: Epic Botch or Brilliant Diplomacy?

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 11:05 AM EDT

This is today's omnibus Syria post.

First, I have a question. I keep hearing people talk about how hard it will be to verify that Bashar al-Assad has really given up all his chemical weapons under the agreement reached this weekend with the Russians. Fair enough. It will be hard. But then I keep hearing about how this will be "just like Saddam" and the way he tricked the UN inspectors. What am I missing here? Han Blix's team certainly had issues with Saddam's level of cooperation, but in the end there was no trickery. It's just that Saddam had no weapons. That's why it was hard to get a full accounting from him.

Right? So what is all this renewed Saddam talk about? Are the hawks just hoping that we've all forgotten there was no WMD to find in the first place?

Second, I am amused to see John McCain griping that this agreement will be viewed as "an act of provocative weakness on America's part." This got me wondering. Has there ever been any American action overseas short of a full-on invasion that McCain hasn't viewed as an act of provocative weakness? I can't think of any, but I suppose there must have been at least one or two. Somebody help me out here.

Third, I am eagerly waiting for some plugged-in White House reporter to write a definitive tick-tock about the whole Syria thing. The beginning of the story is pretty well known. I don't think there's much question that President Obama initially failed to grasp the level of opposition to his plan for air strikes, and that this forced him into a series of clumsy reverses and foolish statements. It was a pretty embarrassing fubar.

But despite the endless petulance from the usual suspects, the past two weeks have been different. By hook or by crook, Obama (a) raised the issue of Assad's chemical weapons to an international level, (b) got Vladimir Putin (!) to take a lead role in reining them in, (c) got Assad to join the chemical weapons ban and agree to give up his stockpiles, and (d) do it all while keeping military pressure as an active option, but without ever firing a shot. Carrying out the inspections and destruction of Assad's weapons will obviously be a Herculean task, but still, this is a good start.

So here's what I want to know: was this all just a lucky accident? I've heard a couple of rumors lately that John Kerry's "off the cuff" remark about Assad giving up his chemical weapons wasn't unintended at all. In fact, he was authorized by the White House to bring it up when an opportunity presented itself, and that opportunity came last Monday. Kerry's actual choice of words may have been a little awkward, but it was no accident. Putin expected it; Kerry knew what he was doing; Lavrov called to coordinate a few hours afterward; and the Russians then made their proposal. But this has all been kept under strict lock and key because the whole point was to make this a Putin initiative, one that he'd have ownership of. If it's his baby, he'll fight for it instead of coming up with endless reasons to nitpick an American proposal to death.

Is this how things went down? I have no idea. But I'd sure like to find out. If it's true, it would be one of the most fascinating pieces of diplomatic legerdemain in recent years. And it would demonstrate an almost unheard-of willingness in a U.S. president to accept mountains of abuse because secrecy was essential to getting the job done.

So: crackpot rumor or actual fact? Someone with good White House sources needs to figure this out.

Financial Markets Sure Seem to Hate Larry Summers

| Mon Sep. 16, 2013 9:57 AM EDT

Neil Irwin points to the chart on the right, which shows the stock market's reaction to news that Larry Summers is no longer a candidate for chairman of the Federal Reserve:

What is going on here? The answer that Wall Street analysts are coming up with is simple: Call it the Yellen Rally. It now looks like Janet Yellen, the Fed's vice chairwoman, is the most probable candidate for the Fed chairmanship, and she is viewed as more dovish, or soft on inflation, than Summers. That would imply that the Fed would keep interest rates lower for longer, and would choose a more gradual wind-down of its bond-buying program

....Other market measures don't quite fit the story, though. For example, if one expects a Yellen Fed to be softer on inflation than a Summers Fed, you would look for measures of expected inflation to spike on the news of Summers's withdrawal. But Monday morning, the spread between inflation-adjusted and non-inflation adjusted bonds implied that investors expect average annual inflation of 1.8 percent over the next five years — exactly where it closed Friday.

I never know quite what to think about this stuff. The effect here is sharp enough and localized enough that it seems as if Summers really is the cause. But come on. I was on Team Yellen myself, but the truth is there was never really all that much policy daylight between Summers and Yellen. It's crazy for investors to react very strongly to this news.

And Irwin's final conclusion is even crazier. He figures the market must view Yellen as more dovish on inflation, but inflation expectations have been stable. Hmmm. So why is the market really reacting this way? Here it is: "The prospect of a Summers nomination had put a pall of uncertainty over markets....His Senate confirmation would have been polarizing and contentious, with the outcome in the air until the final vote count....Markets are rallying because the prospect of months of being whipsawed by uncertainty over the Fed's future direction have diminished."

Really? Whipsawed by uncertainty? That seems crazy squared. A government shutdown would produce uncertainty. A second debt ceiling debacle would produce uncertainty. By contrast, not knowing which of two very similar candidates will become the next Fed chair seems like something we could all take in stride.

Besides, if financial markets are really this spooked by uncertainty, shouldn't the princes of Wall Street be working like lemmings behind the scenes to persuade Republicans to back off the cliff and agree to both a budget and a debt ceiling increase? But they haven't been. Oh, their preferences are clear, but we know what it looks like when they're putting on a full-court press, and they aren't doing it. Why not?

I dunno. Something doesn't add up here.

Summers Out in Race for Fed Chairman

| Sun Sep. 15, 2013 7:39 PM EDT

So this is unexpected:

Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and senior White House economic adviser, has withdrawn as a candidate for Federal Reserve chairman, in a startling development that raises urgent questions about who will lead the central bank when Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke steps down in four months.

....People close to the White House said Summers faced not only a rebellion among liberal Democrats but also other challenges, including a debate over whether to launch military strike against Syria that stretched out the Fed process and gave more time for opposition to build.

“It was just a perfect storm of bad timing,” said one person close to the White House, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about private deliberations. “It would have been absolute war, and the president would have had to spend all of his political capital. Larry decided not to drag him through it.”

I don't have a lot to add to this. Obviously Summers concluded that the brewing liberal rebellion in the Senate, which already includes three Democrats publicly opposed to his nomination, was only likely to get worse. He's probably right about that. Nonetheless, it was a decent thing to do, so props to him for gracefully removing himself from a post that he so obviously wanted.

The liberal revolt against Summers had lots of reasons. It was, as they say, overdetermined. But I'll toss out one additional reason that hasn't gotten much attention but might have been lurking in the background: President Obama's renomination of Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman in 2009. It's not that Democrats hated Bernanke, but his renomination certainly sent a message that only a non-liberal could be trusted to run the Fed. That rankled, and this time around it worked against Summers. He wasn't perceived as conservative, obviously, but fairly or not, he was certainly perceived as less liberal than progressive Democrats had a right to expect from a fellow progressive Democrat.

In any case, the front runner now is certainly Janet Yellen, and presumably that's who Obama will now nominate. She won't have any trouble with Democrats, but it will certainly be interesting to see if Republicans, after having one of their own run the Fed for seven consecutive terms—always with plenty of support from Democrats—will allow Yellen's nomination to proceed. Since it's the Senate that has to confirm her, not the House, the odds are in her favor. But only modestly, I'd guess. You may have noticed that Republicans haven't exactly been cordial toward Obama's nominees lately. And there's an election coming up. Don't uncork the champagne quite yet.

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Travel Bleg — Phones in London

| Sat Sep. 14, 2013 11:45 AM EDT

Quick travel bleg: what's the best option for a short-term mobile phone in England? Rental? Cheap prepaid phone? Something else? And what's the best place to get one? At Heathrow while you're waiting for your bags? In town? This would mostly be for actual phone calls. Data/email is secondary.

No guesses, please, if you don't actually have any personal experience here. But if you've done this recently, any advice or recommendations would be appreciated. Thanks.

Friday Cat Blogging - 13 September 2013

| Fri Sep. 13, 2013 2:06 PM EDT

It's Friday the 13th, which means you should avoid black cats. Except for Domino, of course, who is arranged fetchingly today on a quilt called "Oh My Stars!" — complete with exclamation mark, just like Jeopardy! and Yahoo! This is a traditional block-celled "sawtooth star" design, machine pieced and hand quilted. It's 102" x 102", Marian's largest. I'm also told—though, as usual, I don't actually remember this myself—that it includes some fabrics that I brought home from London shortly after we were married. Look closely and you can see some stars made out of Liberty Tana Lawn designs.

Quick health update: Domino is fine. The house has been de-flead, she's been bathed twice, and her little pinprick sores appear to be fading away. Her thyroid is under the care of a special diet, but it will probably be a month or two before we see much of an effect.

In other news, my sister recommends this story about Buddha the cat, who is losing weight by exercising on an underwater treadmill.

Also, if you're in a giving mood, MoJo is running a fundraiser this month. Click here to help keep catblogging going. (Oh, and to support our investigative reporting, too.) And if you're still in a giving mood—and why wouldn't you be?—you might consider putting aside a few dollars for Emptywheel, a blog that's been even more useful than usual lately in the wake of all the NSA surveillance disclosures.

Everyone Is Happy About the Surveillance Debate

| Fri Sep. 13, 2013 1:48 PM EDT

Here is James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, talking about the disclosure of NSA surveillance programs by Edward Snowden:

I think it's clear that some of the conversations this has generated, some of the debate, actually needed to happen.

And here is FISA judge Dennis Saylor, ordering the government to conduct a declassification review of court rulings related to the NSA's phone records program:

The unauthorized disclosure in June 2013 of a Section 215 order, and government statements in response to that disclosure, have engendered considerable public interest and debate about Section 215. Publication of FISC opinions relating to this provision would contribute to an informed debate....Publication would also assure citizens of the integrity of this Court's proceedings.

And, of course, here is President Obama shortly after the first Snowden disclosures:

I welcome this debate. And I think it's healthy for our democracy.

It's unanimous! Everyone thinks that Snowden's disclosures have generated a useful and much needed debate. So when do we actually get to have this debate?

Buck Up, America! We Must Have More War!

| Fri Sep. 13, 2013 12:38 PM EDT

I read this piece yesterday by Eliot Cohen and felt tempted to nominate him for Asshole of the Year. He's upset that Americans claim to be "war-weary":

The families of the fallen are entitled to war-weariness. So are those wounded in body or spirit, and their loved ones. The mother who has sent her son to war has a right to war-weariness, as does the father who prepares to send his daughter to battle again and again. But for the great mass of the American public, for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, “war-weariness” is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world.

The average American has not served in the armed forces, as a diplomat or intelligence agent in a war zone. Neither have his or her children. No one has raised our taxes to pay for war. Americans can change the channel if they find the images too disturbing....

Tired of war? Just change the channel, crybaby, and let the rest of us get on with the business of running the world.

With the benefit of a night's sleep, I still think Cohen should get a nomination. This was really one of the most offensive columns I've read in a long time. Cohen is simply apoplectic at the thought of anyone in America thinking they have a right to be tired of war merely because we've been at war for 12 continuous years for virtually zero observable gain. "President Obama knew he was going to be a war president," Cohen lectures us. "If that duty was too trying for him, he should not have run for reelection, because, as he has discovered, he might have to fight new wars and not merely end old ones."

This attitude is nothing new, obviously. There's a strong belief among the Beltway pundit class—even among a lot of liberals—that a true commander-in-chief is someone who is always and everywhere ready to go to war without doubt and without misgivings. Even if the war is wrong, you need to keep up a steely facade.

I sometimes wonder how it is that so few people seem to recognize just how insane this is. Even speaking as someone who thinks Obama handled Syria pretty poorly, I don't have the slightest problem with the fact that he was obviously conflicted about it. He should be conflicted about it. This isn't self-defense. We're not defending democracy. We're not responding to any danger to Americans. It's a close call. And it would be something like our eighth—or tenth, or twelfth, depending on how you count—overseas military action in the past two decades. What kind of person doesn't look at a record like this and at least consider the possibility that a full-bore bloody shirt campaign by the president might not be in order yet again?